At a career crossroads, does Taylor have a future with Nats?

Hindsight being 50/50, the time for the Nationals to have dealt outfielder Michael A. Taylor was probably last winter, when he was coming off his breakthrough 2017 campaign in the major leagues. Taylor slashed .271/.320/.486 with 19 homers, 43 RBIs and 17 stolen bases. He posted a .333/.444/.733 line in the National League Division Series against the Cubs and was a finalist for a Gold Glove in center field.

But 2018 was a lost season for the 27-year-old Taylor, who backslid in almost every offensive category, save for stolen bases, where he recorded 24. He played in more games, but more sporadically. Playing time was tough to come by as the season went on, Adam Eaton proved himself healthy and productive, and Juan Soto burst onto the scene, forcing manager Davey Martinez to juggle his outfield alignment and play Bryce Harper more often in center field.

September saw Taylor play in 15 games and take 16 pate appearances, putting a cap on a .227/.287/.357 season in which he hit six homers and drove in 28 runs. Last offseason, Taylor avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $2.525 million deal. Once again arbitration-eligible, Taylor is predicted to earn a salary bump to $3.2 million, according to MLBTradeRumors.com. If the Nationals have to count their pennies, he could be deemed expendable. I don’t think that will happen, but time will tell.

Thumbnail image for Michael A. Taylor walk off blue.jpgIt’s clear the Nationals still see value in Taylor, or else they would have sold high on him last offseason. He’s just hitting his peak production years, plays strong defense and adds a speed element. But is there still room for him as anything other than a reserve outfielder, and are the Nats approaching a point where they must fish or cut bait with a homegrown talent selected in the sixth round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft?

That’s the million-dollar question, and one that can’t be fully answered until the Nationals decide whether to get into the Harper sweepstakes, something they’ve already expressed an interest in doing.

Even without Harper, there’s no route to significant playing time for Taylor - not if the Nats formulate their starting outfield with Soto in left, Victor Robles in center and Eaton in right. Sure, Taylor can back up all three spots. With Robles unproven, it behooves the Nats to have a legit center fielder in reserve; considering Eaton’s injury history, they need to be ready to slot someone into right field should the veteran hit the disabled list.

If the Nats break the bank and re-sign Harper, there seems even less need for Taylor. Put Harper in right, Robles in center and Soto in left, and that’s three outfielders with no place for Eaton or Taylor. Eaton won’t be happy in a reserve role, and Taylor doesn’t fit the mode of a fifth outfielder or pinch-hitter (he’s got a .137/.185/.196 slash line in a pinch). But Taylor’s defense and speed stand out; there’s no other outfielder on the roster with quite the same skill set.

So what’s a general manager to do?

Well, Mike Rizzo isn’t going to just give Taylor away. Maybe he finds a trade match and is able to move Taylor to fill one of the Nats’ multiple needs - in the bullpen, the middle infield, behind the plate, in the rotation. Taylor still has plenty of upside, and one scout told me late last season that he might be a classic change-of-scenery guy, a player who might only succeed in a new environment where he could start over.

It might even make sense for Rizzo to maximize his leverage and hold on to Taylor deep into spring training, hoping some other club develops a need he can fill. But with Taylor not eligible for free agency until after the 2020 season, the Nats have the upper hand here. He’s probably not a candidate to be non-tendered, if only because of his age and the fact that he’s teased at offensive production in the past. Fleet outfielders who can flash the leather don’t grow on trees; they’re definitely a valued commodity.

A rebuilding team might value the blend of offense and defense possessed by Taylor, who could help them be strong up the middle and use his speed to save pitchers’ mistakes in the gaps. A team on the cusp of contention might value Taylor’s versatility and ability to fill multiple roles. But the match has to yield the Nationals something they need.

Can the Nationals keep him? Sure, but Taylor wants to play and being a fourth or fifth outfielder presents only limited opportunities. But as long as they maintain team control of his contract, that’s at least a possibility - albeit one that, at some point, will probably provide only diminishing returns.

There aren’t a lot of outfielders pushing Taylor from the upper reaches of the minor leagues, and that could work on his behalf. Andrew Stevenson is the lone guy pressing for playing time, and he might be better suited to a reserve role right now. Daniel Johnson is just 22, has played only 89 games at Double-A and hasn’t exactly torn up the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .145/.260/.177 without a home run. He’s at least a couple of years away, and only if he shows some progress.

Luckily, the Nats aren’t in a position where they have so many top prospects that need to be protected from the Rule 5 draft at the Winter Meetings that they have to sacrifice 40-man roster spots to accommodate them. But Taylor is as curious a case as the club has this offseason, and the Nationals need to decide whether they’ve exhausted their chances for Taylor to deliver on his promise.

Note: The Baseball Writers’ Association of America has released its 2019 Hall of Fame ballot, and Rick Ankiel is the lone former Nationals player listed among the candidates. Headliners for this year’s ballot include all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera, multiple Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, 256-game winner Andy Pettitte and former Most Valuable Player Miguel Tejada.

Ankiel is one of 20 newcomers on the ballot. He played in Washington for two of his 11 seasons, slashing .236/.292/.377 over the 2011-12 campaigns, with 14 homers and 52 RBIs. He started his major league career as a pitcher with the Cardinals in 1999 before converting to the outfield full-time when he developed control issues. Ankiel later worked with the Nationals as a life skills coordinator.

Balloting results will be announced live on MLB Network on Jan. 22.

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